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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: An Overview of the Man, and the History of the Holiday

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day- An Overview of the Man, and the History of the HolidayOn January 16, 2017, our nation will celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our children will learn more about his contributions to our society, and Americans everywhere will pause to honor the man who encouraged peace and promoted equality. He led a fascinating life, and there is so much more to know than just his "I Have a Dream" speech. Whether you are planning on talking about the holiday with your children, or just want to know more about his legendary life, here is an overview of Dr. King and his impact on our nation.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, slavery had only ended in the south a few generations earlier. African-Americans, while free, did not have equal rights. They fought for those rights during the Civil Rights Movement. He got a particularly painful taste of racism when, at six years old upon entering school for the first time, he was separated from a white friend because of segregation. His friend's father decided he no longer wanted Martin and his son to play together. It was one of many experiences that would build the foundation of Dr. King's desire to fight for equal rights for everyone.

As early as high school, King demonstrated his ability to move people with words. He was a member of the debate team, and was known for his speeches. At age 15, after passing the entrance exams, King entered Morehouse University and began his college career. Before finishing college, King decided that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and become a minister. He cited an urge to help humanity and work to heal the hate and anger that existed between races. After graduating from Morehouse, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary where he earned a Baccalaureate in Divinity degree in 1951. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University. 

The events of December 1, 1955, sparked what would be the first of many peaceful protests led in part by Dr. King in an effort to fight for equality for African-Americans. Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a public bus. E.D. Nixon planned a boycott of the Montgomery Bus Company in response and Dr. King led the boycott. During the 385 days of the boycott, Dr. King's house was bombed and he was arrested, but the ordeal ended with the United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle to end racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. The decision put Dr. King at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, and turned him into a spokesperson and national figure.

Dr. King's civil rights career continued through the 1960s and he often spoke out against violence of any kind. One of his most famous quotes, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." sums up the approach to his life's work. He peacefully protested racial injustice in Birmingham and the violence directed at protesters in that city. He was arrested for his efforts, but the end result was the chief of police, Eugene Connor, losing his job for initiating the violence. In August of 1963, Dr. King played a key role in organizing a March on Washington. The march drew 250,000 participants, inspired other marches, and paved the way for the passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He was voted TIME magazine's Man of the Year in 1964, was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and was a symbolic leader and unifier for his people. But on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the hotel where he was a guest in Memphis, Tennessee.

Shortly after his death, a campaign was started to establish a national holiday to honor his life. The holiday was signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan, and it was officially observed in all states in 2000. Opponents of the holiday cited that no private citizen had ever had an official holiday, while supporters countered that Dr. King's public service stood as sufficient reason to establish one.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, it's important for us all to view this day as not just another holiday, but to pause and truly remember the contributions that Dr. King made to our society.

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Topics: Holidays

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